“Prairie Tree” by artist Ned Kahn is one of several new pieces of art coming to Nicollet Mall. Photos by Annabelle Marcovici

Art returns to Nicollet Mall

Updated: September 14, 2017 - 3:16 pm

Returning and new artworks are being installed as a rejuvenated Nicollet Mall emerges

The saying goes that life is short, but art is long. For the art on Nicollet Mall, some pieces have lived several lives.

Crews have begun installing new and old pieces on the mall, which is seeing a $50-million renovation that is set to be completed this fall. City officials say this generation of works — Nicollet Mall’s third — marks a shift in the types of public art on display in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

The street wasn’t always dotted with public art displays. The City of Minneapolis first commissioned art for the mall in the 1960s, bringing in pieces like the “Sculpture Clock.” Decades later, sentiments have changed, and the latest generation further builds the city’s contemporary art collection.

“People didn’t understand the value of it,” said Mary Altman, the city’s public arts administrator. “People now expect to see [art] in the public realm.”

The city has begun reinstalling six of its eight works on the mall that were removed in the fall of 2015. The first of more than 70 “Hail Minnesota” manhole covers from artist Kate Burke now dot the south end of the mall, which the city is reconstructing between Grant Street and Washington Avenue.

“Shadows of Spirit,” a series of seven embedded shadows from artists Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken and poet Soyini Guyton, are back in their normal home between 12th and 13th streets.

The “Sculpture Clock,” a 16-foot-tall clock tower that has sat next to Peavey Plaza since 1968, is set to be reinstalled later this month. The piece from artist Jack Nelson is one of the last vestiges of the mall’s 1960s design.

“Shadows of Spirit,” a series commissioned during the 1990s renovation of Nicollet Mall, depicts seven figures overlaid with poetry.
“Shadows of Spirit,” a series commissioned during the 1990s renovation of Nicollet Mall, depicts seven figures overlaid with poetry.

The first large-scale artwork from the newest reconstruction project might seem familiar to Minnesota Twins fans. Sculptor Ned Kahn’s “Prairie Tree,” a metallic, tree-shaped sculpture at 11th & Nicollet, has similar leaf-like shingles to Kahn’s “The Wave,” a 60-foot-high wall of movable metal outside Target Field.

Two new pieces will be installed later this year. The city is currently preparing the new Theater in the Round outside the Minneapolis Central Library on the mall’s north side for “Nimbus” by Tristan Al-Haddad, the largest-scale piece in this round of new works. The 45-foot-wide sculpture, which will be built and lit like a halo, is meant to appear like it is levitating over the library’s plaza.

The final work is a series of suspended lanterns from Blessing Hancock over the “Light Walk,” a new feature designed by James Corner Field Operations with a trellis of tilted mirrors outside the IDS Center. The series of lanterns, set to be installed this October, will hang around the Light Walk and feature poetry and prose from local, emerging writers.

Mall Construction-39 webRegina Flanagan, an artist and public arts administrator hired by the city to give a behind-the-scenes view of the art installations on Nicollet Mall, said the piece will reveal itself slowly over many encounters. Only some words are legible from a given angle, so people will experience it differently whether they’re just walking by or stopping to focus on certain phrases, she added.

“You could pass that every day for years and see something new each time,” Flanagan said. “You’re not going to get it all in a glance. Rather, it will unveil itself over time.”

At least two works will not return to the mall. The “Loon, Great Blue Heron and Grouse” sculpture outside the Young Quinlan building at 9th & Nicollet and the nearby decorated bus shelter glass from artist Philip Larson nearby won’t come back. Altman said they are looking to relocate the pieces in different areas around the city.

Mall Construction-17Flanagan, both an artist and landscape architect, described the latest generation of art — pieces from Kahn, Al-Haddad and Hancock — as “phenomenological,” meaning they are to be engaged directly by passersby, who build their own experiences. Unlike previous work installed on the mall —  literal, “less cerebral” items like decorative manholes, benches and clocks, she said — this latest round of art will offer different experiences to downtown dwellers for years and years to come.

“The current work is socially motivated because it will create exciting public places, places where people want to be,” Flanagan said. “It’s meant to bring people together to experience something and build their understanding with the work and each other.”

Flanagan experienced this firsthand with “Prairie Tree.” One day she walked by the piece and a storm was coming. The gray clouds reflected in the IDS Center and the wind blew, she said, moving the shingles to one side and producing waves of “shiny, silvery” light. A moment later, and the wind blew another direction and the shingles moved, showing a dull side. Depending on the day, lighting and other factors, others will have different experiences.

“That’s what makes it so intriguing. I couldn’t have anticipated [it],” she said.

Dozens of decorate manhole covers have started coming back to Nicollet Mall.
Dozens of decorate manhole covers have started coming back to Nicollet Mall.

Altman said she sees a shift toward a different kind of art experience on the mall. New signature pieces will speak to a captivated audience of office workers and downtown commuters over their lifetimes. Unlike a museum where people go specifically for the art, Nicollet Mall will give people casual encounters with art during their day.

“[It’s] an audience where many people see [Nicollet Mall] every day, and they see it every day for years and years,” she said.

Mall Construction-4 webThe city is acknowledging the longevity of its art collection with the latest commissions.

Flanagan blogs about the pieces at nicolletmallart.org. Her writing will be archived at the Central Library after the mall is renovated.

Her position is vital, she said, because the city didn’t archive previous generations of art. “Grasping the historical moment” is an important piece of the work, she added.

“This is a rare opportunity. I haven’t seen other programs use this opportunity to give an inside look,” she said.

Flanagan said she now sees different approaches and generations of art interwoven into the new mall. Hopefully, she said, there will be more works — and different opportunities to experience them — on the mall sooner rather than later.

“I hope Nicollet Mall doesn’t have to wait 20 years for more public art,” Flanagan said.